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What is contextual theology?

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Also known as “enculturation,” contextual theology refers to the manner in which the church in every age tends to adapt its teachings to the culture in which it finds itself. There are many examples of this, but perhaps the best is found in 1 Corinthians 11:4–7. Paul’s teaching here has to do with head coverings. For a woman in that culture not to cover her head was quite unthinkable. The veil or covering on the head of a believing Corinthian wife showed that she was under the authority of her husband, and therefore under submission to God. In the Corinthian culture, women normally wore a head covering as a symbol of their submission to their husbands. Paul affirms the rightness of following that cultural protocol—to dispense with the head coverings on women would send the entirely wrong signal to the culture at large. In fact, Paul says that, if a Christian woman refuses her head covering, she might as well shave her hair off, too—an act that would bring shame (verse 6). A woman who refused to wear a covering in that culture was basically saying, “I refuse to submit to God’s order.” The apostle Paul’s teaching was that the wearing of a “covering” by the woman was an outward indication of a heart attitude of submission to God and to His established authority. To adapt that teaching to various other cultures falls under the realm of contextual theology.

Clearly, teachings from the Bible have to sometimes be interpreted in the context of the culture. Nevertheless, the underlying principles of God’s Word are still the same today as they were when they were written. The principle in the 1 Corinthians passage is that Christ is head over the body and the husband is head over the wife, who should be in submission to him and show her submission in culturally appropriate ways.

Contextual theology uses principles from the Bible but filters it through the lens of contemporary reference points. In forming such a theological system, one must consider linguistic, socio-political, cultural, and ideological factors. The result is sometimes a syncretic hodge-podge of beliefs. “Following Jesus” in one culture and context may look very different from “following Jesus” in another culture on the other side of the world—and it may look nothing like Christianity at all. Obviously, contextual theology has to be applied carefully. There is always a danger that, in accommodating the truth to a culture, the truth is compromised and the gospel is lost in translation.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022